The last time Raghav Mathur was in Halifax, his voice was just one of many when his junior high school choir sang in the Royal Nova Scotia International Tattoo in the mid-’90s.
“Do they still have that there?” queries the Calgary pop singer, who’s heading back east to help kick off the RBC Multicultural Festival on Friday at the Halifax Seaport.
Informed that it’s still going strong, the performer known these days as simply Raghav says he has fond memories of his last whirlwind trip to the Maritimes with his classmates and can’t wait to return to perform at another major downtown event with the tunes from his new CD, The Phoenix.
“I remember it being a big deal, holy cow. But that was the only time I’ve been to Halifax; it was amazing, I had a great time. I felt like I was the only brown guy in the Tattoo though.”
Fast forward to 2012, and Raghav is making inroads on Canadian pop radio with Phoenix singles like Fire, Top of the World and his Kardinal Offishall collaboration So Much. But even though he’s just starting to break out in his home and native land, this musician of East Indian descent already had chart experience elsewhere when he released his first singles in the U.K. in 2004, before his music spread to South Asia and the Middle East.
“The one place I wasn’t getting recognition was at home in North America, in Canada and the U.S.,” he explains “Then my mom got sick 2 years ago, and I realized ‘What’s the point of being halfway around the world when you’re not really at home?’ So I decided to come back and get a record deal.
“I thought, ‘Well, I’ve sold a million records, this should be a breeze!’ But it turned out no one cared. I set out to change that, and it’s been a fun process. It’s exciting and it feels like I’m on my second career.”
A prodigy in high school, Mathur got a recommendation from his music teacher to study with Los Angeles vocal coach Seth Riggs, most famous for working with Michael Jackson and Madonna, before spending a year in the Liverpool Institute of Performing Arts, founded by Paul McCartney. From there he went from the British R&B group 11/7 to a solo deal with V2 that led to a number of chart hits and an album, Storyteller, which sold 1.6 million copies worldwide.
Pretty soon, Raghav was having wildly different musical careers on different continents.
“That’s quite an accurate way to put it,” he says. “I had four Top 10 singles in one year in the U.K., and things were crazy, when I started getting calls from family members in India telling me there were billboards of me all over before I even knew my record was coming out there.
“The power of the Indian market is so global; I’d sell out shows in New York or Toronto, but only Indian people knew about me (in North America).”
Now Raghav is seeing greater variety in his audiences, responding to dance floor-friendly music that’s got the stamp of his self-effacing personality and a touch of Indian spice that comes from an authentic place instead of some producer’s bag of trendy tricks.
Lately, he’s been working with Bollywood composer A.R. Rahman, best known in the West for his work on Slumdog Millionaire, for a couple of projects that will expand his range even further, and put him on the kind of multicultural pop platform that’s enjoyed by, to use his example, Latin American artists who can record in their own language as well as for English-speaking listeners.
“My biggest fear is being vanilla,” he says. “Even a song like Fire, which is a really pop song and it’s got that commercial appeal, it’s got a country vein running through a dance production. It doesn’t have to be edgy, but I’d like to sound unique to stand out from what I call ‘The Gang of 15’ — those 15 songs that seem to be the only thing getting played at radio at any given time.
“I’m a pop artist, there’s no denying it, so I’ve got to deal with the contradiction of wanting to fit in while trying to stand out. And then there’s the challenge of my name. People ask me why don’t I change my name to something easier to pronounce, and I just think, ‘Well, maybe it’s more convoluted or more difficult, but I think it’ll be more rewarding once people get to know me.’”
IF YOU GO
WHEN: Friday to Sunday
WHERE: Halifax Seaport (near Pier 21)
WHO: Friday: Raghav, World Drum of Peace; Saturday: Dance Extravaganza, Three Sheet, Afro Nova Musica; Sunday: Cultural Costumes Parade, Closing Ceremonies
WHAT: Children’s Pavilion, Exhibition Pavilion, international Food Court
TICKETS: Family pass, $17; adult, $7; youth/student/senior, $6; children 6 to 12, $2; under 6, free